Which of Deadline’s disruptors has taken more advantage of shifts in the movie business than Uruguayan writer-director Fede Alvarez? By doing his second film on spec, he managed to own a majority stake in Don’t Breathe, a horror film that cost $7 million and grossed $157 million worldwide. That brought him a payday well into eight-figures, making him wealthy similar to the circumstance that left George Lucas the owner of his Star Wars creation.
And this happened after his first break, which came when he put his five-minute, $300-budgeted short film Panic Attack! on YouTube, creating a viral sensation and weeks later closing a million-dollar deal to make his directing debut on a remake of Evil Dead, the film that established one of his genre idols, Sam Raimi. He parlayed these successes into directing The Girl In The Spider’s Web at Sony, which he’ll follow with a sequel to Jim Henson’s cult favorite Labyrinth. But damn if Alvarez realized he was taking a disruptor’s path to the A-list. His story is worth repeating, because low-budget genre films have become the point of entry for many new filmmakers; the fastest way for them to make an indelible mark and springboard to the A-list.
“I wish I could tell you I had this strategy to take over the world,” Alvarez admits. “But the reality is that, like most things I do, I did all this because it felt right. My motive has always been to do right things for the right reasons. And the reason for Panic Attack! was, I made a short that I had no money to make, and this seemed the only way to get it seen.”
The short depicts giant robots and spaceships massing in the Uruguayan capital city, and then fusing to create an apocalyptic explosion. The impact in Hollywood was similar. “YouTube had just launched their HD format, and before that, it looked so bad that if something we made looked like shit, we’d say it looked like YouTube. That changed, and though I knew I wouldn’t be there to shake hands with the audience or stand in front of the screen with no ego satisfaction, why not put it there and see if millions of people might enjoy it? I woke up to literally hundreds of emails from Hollywood, which of course I thought was some kind of joke. Every agent, lots of managers, every major studio, all singing the same song. ‘We love your short, we want to meet you.’ ”
One of those meets was with Nathan Kahane, who put him on the phone with his Ghost House Pictures partner Raimi, while Alvarez used his Hollywood trip to turn down numerous offers to direct big-budget films he saw he’d have little control over. “You have to understand, I had emails that said, ‘Spielberg saw the short and he’s crazy about it,’ so it was hard to impress me just by name, because I was already so impressed. But it all came down to the call with Sam.”
Alvarez had cut his teeth on genre, and to him it made the most sense to start there, as he did with an exuberantly bloody and profitable remake of Evil Dead. “I came of age in the late ’80s, when VHS was the best thing in the world,” he says. “You went to the video store and got a movie every weekend; I bled every section of the video store dry. I noticed genre was the way many filmmakers did their first films. Just like Blumhouse provides opportunities now, Roger Corman launched Oliver Stone, Francis Coppola, James Cameron, and they all started doing small horror films.”
After Evil Dead, Alvarez kept turning down the big offers—even a Marvel superhero movie—preferring to stay in his lane. While he developed some video game adaptations with studios, he and scripting partner Rodo Sayagues co-wrote Don’t Breathe, a small tale about three Detroit teens who try to rob a blind war veteran who has received a $300,000 windfall for an accident that claimed his young daughter’s life. Turns out, the soldier is more than he seems, and the teens are left trying to escape his house of horrors. Alvarez wound up owning the majority of his film, a rarity for a sophomore filmmaker.
He says it was easier to turn down offers because he and his wife consciously lived a Spartan life. “A lot of decisions are made in this business because people have huge mortgages and financial pressures. I tried to avoid that. Until a month ago, I had the same small apartment, because that put less financial pressure on me. My wife and I decided, we don’t need all this shit. We were happy living the way we lived, and thinking that just living in LA was pretty beautiful. When I was offered the bad movie, the wrong movie or the big movie I felt wasn’t for me—which was the case most often after the success of Evil Dead—the question was, do I want to do that? No. Can I wait? Yes, I can wait, because they paid me enough money on the first movie that I didn’t have to jump at the next film.”
That included the Marvel movie. Alvarez won’t say which one it was, but admits, “I didn’t feel making a Marvel movie was the place for me at that point. I didn’t think any of those big jobs were the place for me, mostly because I thought I was never going to survive. There was this moment in 2010 when these huge movies were given to directors that made one small movie, and while at first I thought that was a good thing, I realized it was kind of a trap. Studios know they will have more control over that young director who just made an indie drama than they will over a James Cameron-type, or someone who does those films all the time. I felt like it wasn’t coming from the right place, that it was coming from a desire to control, and that’s not going to be good for me. I’m not talking about any studio in particular, but it happens that young directors get chewed up and spat out when they go to do a big movie. When it doesn’t work, it’s bad for you. I felt I didn’t need to go into that big gamble at that point.”
It is unlikely he would have gotten paid better than he will for Don’t Breathe; the film was constructed as an indie but got studio distribution after Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions bought the film, and it was distributed by Sony’s Screen Gems. Alvarez was left with a majority ownership stake.
“I was able on my second movie to own the majority, because the reaction when we sent it out for deals was, ‘This is a crazy movie that probably no one will see, so let him keep the majority of the back end of nothing.’ I was pushy; I said, ‘This is my movie; I’ll write it, produce it, direct it. And I’ll own it.’ They believed in the story, but I think nobody, not even me, imagined the potential of what would end up happening at the box office. We created a precedent.”
Alvarez realizes that, while he now has a template for his movie creations, he won’t own the big studio jobs that keep coming his way. But even there, he feels in a better place than back when he was turning everything down.
“If you haven’t created that perception, getting away with what you want to do in a bigger movie would be harder,” he says. “Because look, the whole creative process in making any film is, who has the bigger bluff? This is not a science, and nobody knows if you cast this guy, he’s going to be better than someone else. Or if the scene plays out this way, it will be better. And if the movie has this finish, it’s going to be a bigger hit. We play pretend that we do, but nobody knows, and we see that every weekend when a movie we think is going to succeed fails, and vice versa. So what backs your bluff, and what makes people really buy into your pitch of, ‘If the movie goes down this way, it’s going to be better’?”
Alvarez has his answer: “When the guy from the studio looks you in the eye, it’s him and his logic wondering if you know what you’re talking about. If I’m there based on a short that kind of worked, he’s going to go, ‘His guess is as good as mine.’ But when I have two movies, the first costing $10 million and making $100 million, and the next costing $7 million and making $150 million, and neither was terrible? When you put that against my bluff, he’s likely to say, ‘I’ll give it to him; for some reason, what he does is working, so let’s give it a shot.’”